American War, by Omar El Akkad
First novels aren’t often ready for inclusion in the canon of American literature. True, they will likely demonstrate a raw, natural talent with language and a gift for storytelling. Invariably, though, some fundamental technique or another needs to be polished and expanded upon. El Akkad’s first work of fiction, American War, fits these categories precisely. His project is to allow an empty Southern pride in that long-ago insurrection, an ensuing protracted war, re-created by what might be called the modern aspects of war’s evolving rules.
El Akkad is Egyptian by birth and reared in Qatar before moving to Canada. He then sits astride the U.S. conflict with al Qaida and ISIS, as played out on the blood-drenched soil of Iraq, the unconquerable terrain of Afghanistan. In this American war, echoes of Abu Ghraib appear, complete with the modern tortures of sensory deprivation and waterboarding, cautioning readers to examine such martial tactics, this time played out on Americans. As the author writes in his prologue, this isn’t a story about war, it’s about ruin.
The story then is of the Chestnuts, and we follow this proud Southern family over several generations: Simon, who is wounded severely, survives, and is held up as an icon of the South’s cause. Sisters Dana and Sara, and much later Simon’s son, Benjamin, who takes over narrative duties near book’s end. Sara, or Sarat, as she becomes known, is the book’s central character – a militia-type assassin trained by a mysterious man named Gaines.
El Akkad’s prose is elegant in places, fumbling with syntax and melodrama in others, but the book’s strength is its imaginative portrayal of national and familial decay in the face of individual hate and national war. As such, it’s nowhere near as inept a book as some reviewers have made it out to be. In fact it will surely have its readers consider the consequences of modern warfare on its true victims, the citizens who have bought into someone else’s rationale for fomenting war.
My rating: 16 of 20 stars
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